- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2012

U.S. and European leaders expressed optimism Friday that direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program could restart in the near future.

“There is a potential possibility that Iran may be ready to start talks,” Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top official for foreign affairs and security policy, said at the State Department. “I’m cautious and optimistic at the same time for this.”

Her remarks come two days after Iranian leaders sent a letter to Mrs. Ashton indicating a willingness to restart nuclear talks with the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

Mrs. Ashton appeared beside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who told reporters that Iran’s delivery of the letter, which was in response to a similarly toned note from Mrs. Ashton, signals a “an important step.”

“We welcome the letter,” Mrs. Clinton said.

It remains to be seen when and where such talks will take place, although officials and analysts have suggested the venue will be in Turkey, where meetings could convene during the coming weeks.

Talks between Iran and the other nations about the Islamic republic’s nuclear program last took place in Istanbul in January 2011, but broke down amid frustration that Iranian leaders were unwilling to make concessions on the program.

Tensions have mounted since then, with Iran claiming the program is geared for peaceful purposes, and the United States, Israel and others assert it is aimed at making nuclear bombs.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers Friday that Iran’s leaders “may be changing their mind” about pressing ahead with the nuclear program amid international sanctions on Iran’s economy.